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Coming off the heels of his nightmare, Arthwyn expected a gargantuan force of the Bull’s Legions to be arrayed against him, an army to match that which had pushed back Talfar’s previous invasion. Instead, he saw barely even a single Legion’s worth of soldiers between the camp and the first several towers in the vale just east of the Horns.
“Is this it?” Arthwyn snorted derisively. “Twenty battalions? This is what you show me?”
The assistant that had woken him felt a brief surge of fear, but it quickly became apparent that Arthwyn wasn’t speaking to him.
“I expected more from you, Trajan…” the Marshal whispered.
Arthwyn had fifty thousand professional soldiers and one hundred thousand peasant levies. The levies were still being roused, but most of his soldiers were already assembled, and those that weren’t were less than five minutes away from taking their own positions. In addition, Bran’s fifty-thousand-strong army—less the couple thousand casualties they had taken outside of Florentia—were holding the city to their south, preventing the Bull from landing soldiers on the banks of the river and flanking the army.
All Arthwyn had to do was point his larger army in the direction of the Horns and keep pushing. Twenty thousand soldiers simply couldn’t stand against one hundred and fifty thousand, especially when the latter had the high ground. They could push forward with their weight alone.
Arthwyn almost gave the order to attack, but he paused for a moment as his sixth-tier eyes swept over the Legion positions, searching for Trajan’s standard. The Legion had been split into its twenty battalions, each twenty-five soldiers deep and forty across, arranged into two lines and spaced out into a checkboard pattern. And in none of these battalions did Arthwyn see the Prince’s banner.
The Marshal couldn’t help but be disappointed, but he was sure Trajan was out there somewhere. Even if he wasn’t, then he was watching from the walls, and Arthwyn felt that slaughtering one of the Prince’s Legions in front of the Prince himself would be a good start to his revenge.
“What’s going on here?” came a voice from behind Arthwyn. The Marshal turned and saw Owain driving up in a silver-trimmed blue heavy chariot pulled by a pair of magnificent white stallions, while dressed in silver battle armor encrusted with sapphires that glittered in the moonlight. The Prince was accompanied by four other warriors in his chariot, and half a dozen other heavy chariots similarly staffed.
After spending an almost titanic amount of effort to not roll his eyes, Arthwyn said, “Nothing too concerning, Your Highness. Just a few ants that have to be crushed before we move on to exterminating the rest of the hive.”
“That doesn’t look like ‘a few ants’ to me,” Owain replied. “Where’s Bran? Why isn’t his army here to reinforce yours?”
“Marshal Bran is currently maintaining the garrison in Florentia,” Arthwyn replied, forcing himself not to speak through gritted teeth. “He’s there to keep our flanks secure. Besides, we have no need of his forces to deal with this.”
Owain glared at Arthwyn, as the Prince clearly heard the derision in the Marshal’s voice. He glanced back at the Legion soldiers standing in the gap between the river and the mountains. They were supported by several four-story towers that were nearby, and he was all but certain that there were mine spells laced throughout the tall grass that his army would have to walk through to challenge them. What’s more, their cavalry wouldn’t be able to carry out any flanking maneuvers in the narrow pass; their only choice was to attack head-on and break the Legion shield wall.
“We shouldn’t attack,” Owain said. “Wait until morning. Keep a strong watch going, but ensure that before we attack their position, we get a good amount of rest and a hearty meal.”
Arthwyn smiled at Owain in the condescending way an adult would to a toddler and said, “That’s not necessary, Your Highness. This situation is completely in hand.” Under normal circumstances, Arthwyn might have agreed with Owain to wait and attack on his own terms, rather than taking Trajan’s provocation—this one Legion was hardly a threat to the camp as a whole, and they couldn’t slip past the Talfar army, either—but with twenty thousand Legion soldiers in front of him waiting to be smashed, he couldn’t help himself.
For his part, Owain debated with himself whether or not it was worth it to argue with the Marshal. He was familiar enough with Arthwyn’s military record to know that he had fought against the Legions before, though not enough to know the depths of the man’s hatred and need for revenge. He had no way to know if Arthwyn’s judgment was being clouded by his personal feelings.
‘This is his job,’ Owain thought to himself. ‘This ‘strategy’ thing really isn’t my forte, I should just trust that Arthwyn has this in hand… Besides, if he fucks this up, I can always take actions later…’
And so, with a prominent frown and a great deal of hesitation, Owain decided to let Arthwyn handle the situation while he drove up and down the lines of the army, letting the Talfar soldiers know that their Prince was with them.
Following his battle with Trajan and his knights, Bran was far more injured than he would ever admit to, so much so that he had to ambush and feed on several of his own cataphracts as they spread throughout the city in the wake of the evacuation. He had to gain the strength to heal enough so that his soldiers wouldn’t see him so vulnerable and undermine his authority.
The Marshal didn’t appreciate depleting his own forces in this way as it made him politically weaker, but the city had been almost completely deserted barring his cataphracts after the Bull’s Legions pulled out, leaving him with little choice if he wanted to keep from lowering himself to ask for assistance.
He’d spent the next couple of days in a daze, the taste of Leon’s blood lingering on his tongue. Every time he consciously thought about the sweet nectar running through Leon’s veins, Bran would shiver in want and anticipation, taking an almost perverse glee in the thought of ripping Leon apart and gorging himself on the young man’s blood.
Bran delegated most of his responsibilities to his immediate subordinates and withdrew into the largest villa in Florentia—not that he had ever played much of a role in the organization of his forces before this, though he’d never completely shut himself away before. Messages from Arthwyn asking for an update to the occupation of Florentia were ignored. Any questions his adjutants and unit leaders had regarding what they should be doing were paid no mind. He simply holed up in the luxurious villa of a local merchant to finish healing and to fantasize about Leon’s blood.
‘What makes it so delicious?’ Bran wondered for the thousandth time. ‘Even Trajan’s blood wasn’t so sweet. That boy must be descended from something, or have ingested something that changed him on a fundamental level… I should try and take him alive if possible and ask him about it… If it can be replicated in other people, to give them the delicious qualities…’
Unfortunately, Bran knew that if he got so much as a taste of Leon’s blood, even just a drop of blood on his tongue, then he wouldn’t be able to hold back. He’d drain Leon of everything as quickly as he could like the unabashed glutton that he was.
So taken was he by his fantasies that Bran didn’t even notice the extremely loud and slightly panicked knocking at his door. He only noticed that he had visitors when one of his sixth-tier Warrior-Chiefs kicked in his door and stormed through the villa looking for the Marshal.
“My Lord!” the Warrior-Chief said with the intensity of someone trying with all of their might not to shout in anger and frustration.
“What?” Bran asked coolly, the killing intent he emitted at being so rudely interrupted dropping the temperature in the villa almost to freezing.
At the sight of a quietly enraged seventh-tier mage, the Warrior-Chief paled and forced himself to calm down. His frustration with his Marshal had been mounting over the past couple days, since as Bran’s second-in-command, he’d had to step up even more than usual to see to fortifying Florentia and organizing Bran’s battalions into something that resembled a professional and proficient fighting force, not to mention having to take care of the casualties they sustained in taking the city.
“A Legion has assembled on the plain before the army’s camp!”
“Did you see Prince Trajan among their assembled soldiers?” Bran asked, his voice deepening almost into a growl.
“No, my Lord!” the Warrior-Chief replied.
“Then let Arthwyn handle it,” Bran said disinterestedly as he lounged back into a couch.
“Then we are to do nothing when our enemy is before us?” the Warrior-Chief asked, his dark eyes narrowing in subdued anger. “Your Lordship should know that your recent behavior is hardly inspiring. More than two thousand of our cataphracts were killed or gravely injured taking this city, and Your Lordship holes up in a fucking villa like a damned vam…” The Warrior-Chief instantly knew that he was about to make a mistake and just barely managed to stop himself from completing the thought, not that Bran cared.
“Like a what?” the vampire asked, wrath entering his voice for the first time since the start of the conversation.
The Warrior-Chief was done with his Marshal’s seeming laziness and preoccupation. The battalions needed leadership, they needed their Marshal.
“Like a fucking vampire in its nest,” the Warrior-Chief finished, glaring at Bran in the eye as if daring the Marshal to do something about it.
Most who interacted with Bran on a regular basis would figure that he was a vampire, even if the man himself didn’t advertise it. The Warrior-Chief knew what kind of creature his Marshal was, but so long as he had been serving the Talfar Kingdom faithfully, the Warrior-Chief hadn’t cared. But his lack of care rapidly began to vanish when Bran locked himself away for days, neglecting his duties.
“You’re quite bold, aren’t you?” the pale vampire said with a quiet chuckle. As usual, he barely opened his mouth to do so, keeping most of his teeth hidden. That being said, the Warrior-Chief could still see the inhumanely long and sharp canines if he tried to.
The Marshal rose from his couch with a deadly look on his face while the Warrior-Chief summoned his battle-ax. The two advanced toward each other with so much killing intent radiating from them that even the Talfar soldiers waiting outside started to feel their legs turn to jelly. However, right before the two started to exchange blows, they heard the loud blast of a horn from the eastern-most reaches of Florentia.
The two stopped and glared at each other. They knew what that horn meant, that there were Legion ships on the river, and that there were more important things to do. Bran couldn’t sit in the villa and lose himself in his fantasies with the Legions so close and Arthwyn not present to deal with it in his stead, and neither could the Warrior-Chief let the rest of the battalions stationed in the city go without proper leadership.
“We’ll deal with this little bit of insubordination later,” the vampire whispered as he smiled at the Warrior-Chief like a shark eyeing its prey.
“Yes, we shall,” the Warrior-Chief responded, not backing down in the slightest. ‘You’ve leeched off my homeland for too long, parasite! When we next speak, I’ll have the rest of the battalion leaders with me. You won’t live through the encounter…’
The two burst out of the villa, much to the relief of the waiting soldiers. The villa Bran had chosen was at the highest point in Florentia, sitting at the top of a low hill that gave a decent view of the surroundings, and the Marshal and his handful of subordinates could see inching along the river several dozen transports and warships.
“How many ships did we seize?” Bran asked.
“A handful of fishing boats, three small cargo transports, one passenger transport,” the Warrior-Chief replied. Left unsaid was the lack of familiarity of the Talfar soldiers with anything to do with operating boats. Everyone present already knew that any boats and ships taken with Florentia would be of extremely limited use to them.
“Then we’ll deal with them when they land,” Bran said as if it were the easiest thing in the world. “If they land outside the city, they’ll be run down by our chariots and cataphracts. If they come close to the city, we can hit them with archers. If they come into the city, then we can board them with infantry.”
“Your Lordship makes it sound so easy,” the Warrior-Chief quipped.
“That’s because it is,” Bran venomously replied, his obvious displeasure at being questioned convincing the other assistants and secretaries around to keep their mouths shut.
“I’ll get the cavalry and chariots ready to go,” the Warrior-Chief stated. “The Bull would be foolish to try and take the city as it is now, especially with only the three or four thousand soldiers they can pack into those ships.”
“You do that,” Bran said, smiling at the Warrior-Chief like he was a child playing at war.
The Warrior-Chief left, grateful at the opportunity to get away from Bran’s condescending gaze.
Bran deliberately waited until just before he was out of earshot before he remarked to the half-dozen other soldiers outside of the villa, “What a fool. When this war is over, I’m going to hang him from the-“
The vampire suddenly cut himself off. His eyes had drifted away from the Warrior-Chief and back to the ships, and he could see standing by the prow of the lead vessel both Prince Trajan and Leon. He and Trajan locked gazes, both powerful mages easily seeing the other even with more than a dozen miles between them. But after only a moment, Bran broke that little staring contest to glance at Leon; the small taste he’d gotten of Trajan’s blood had been delicious, but it was nothing compared to Leon’s.
After a minute or so of silent staring which none of the nearby administrative assistants wanted to break, Bran’s reason quickly faded away. He saw nothing but Leon, and the vampire unconsciously licked his lips. His shadow elongated and darkened, and he sank down into it as if he were falling into the stone and earth. His injuries hadn’t completely healed in only two days, but what was left was only superficial, and the few cuts and bruises he retained weren’t going to stop him from trying to sink his fangs into Leon’s neck.
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